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"Fraser's Penguins" Documents Stark Climate Change in the Antarctic

In a new book, a veteran journalist spends five months with a researcher studying the effects of a melting world on ice-dependent penguins

By Jennifer Pinkowski

Nov 10, 2010

Bill Fraser’s decades-long research on the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula's decreasingly icy ecosystem—and, most famously, its tuxedoed inhabitants—is the subject of a .
 
(Henry Holt and Co., $26) details the five months senior editor and author Fen Montaigne () spent in Antarctica with the ecologist studying thousands of Adélie penguins during their breeding season.

“It’s the tale of how Fraser came to believe—and I think it’s widely accepted now—that warming is the main cause behind the drop in the penguin populations,” Montaigne told SolveClimate News.

In a narrative cataloguing the day-to-day research on the Adélie penguins conducted by Fraser’s team, Montaigne also delves into the natural history of Antarctica; its allure for explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ship Endurance was trapped and slowly crushed by pack ice; and the sharp impact of global warming on a pristine, unearthly environment that Montaigne calls “the closest thing to heaven on Earth.”

Since 1974, Fraser, a researcher with the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) and president of Polar Oceans Research Group, has been studying the ecosystem of the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, where the midwinter temperature has risen 11°F in just 60 years, making it one of the three most rapidly warming regions on the planet. (The other two are Siberia and the Arctic.)

Montaigne first visited Antarctica in 2004 to cover Fraser’s research for National Geographic. He spent a month tailing the scientist from his base at Palmer Station, one of three U.S. research centers on Antarctica.

In that month he was “so taken with the place, and the penguins, and how dramatic the warming was” that he was inspired to dig deeper into the subject.

Among other events he witnessed, notable was the collapse of a “big, big chunk” of ice hundreds of feet wide from the Marr Ice Piedmont glacier. Once connected to a rocky peninsula, “it just collapsed because the ice was retreating so fast,” Montaigne said. When it fell, it opened up a channel between two bodies of water that had been separated for thousands of years.

Melting Sea Ice Triggers Cascade Effect

Funded by an Antarctic Artists and Writers Grant from the , Montaigne returned in October 2005 as an unpaid member of Fraser’s three-person birding team. He spent five months weighing, tagging and counting Adélie penguins in a 15-mile-wide research area near Palmer Station.

Since the mid 1970s, the penguin population in this zone has dropped some 85 percent to about 5,000, a depletion rate mirrored in other colonies on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula. There are some 2.5 million Adélie penguins in all of Antarctica.

The main cause is melting sea ice in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula where glaciers have retreated nearly 90 percent in the last three decades. There are now three fewer months of sea ice every year than there were in 1979, which means fewer krill larvae at the sea-ice edge and fewer silverfish eggs able to take refuge and mature beneath it.

Penguins use the sea ice as a feeding platform to feed on both, which means that the lack of sea ice is a triple whammy. It lowers the penguins' two main food sources at the same time that it limits their access to an increasingly slim supply.

Higher sea and air temperatures have also led to both more snow and more snow melt, both of which are problematic for the penguins. Deeper snowfall makes it harder to build nests. And once the snow melts, penguins find their eggs swimming in pools of icy water.

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